EDITORIAL: Blame game over Dr Kelly must stop

The relentless battle between politicians, their media relations advisers and journalists often feels like a game, in which everyone knows everyone else, no damage is ever truly done, the temporarily defeated can see their stock rise the next day, and everyone takes the month of August off to recharge their batteries ahead of the new season.

That game spun out of control in terrible fashion last week with the tragic suspected suicide of Ministry of Defence weapons expert Dr David Kelly, after he was named as the probable source of a BBC report alleging the Government had 'sexed up' the dossier of information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. After his death, the BBC confirmed Dr Kelly had been the primary source for reports on this issue on Today and Newsnight.

It is at times like these that one should bear in mind there are things more important than reputations, and life is plainly one of them. Protecting one's good name is important, and the battle must always be taken to those who would unfairly traduce a reputation, but this imperative is put firmly in the shade by the awful human consequences of the briefings, leaks and half-truths we have seen in the last month.

The Prime Minister is therefore right to call for restraint, although there appears scant chance he will be granted his wish. Although the media coverage is now drifting into the inside pages, it will only take a dramatic appearance by one of the main protagonists in front of Lord Hutton's judicial inquiry to set alight the firestorm once more.

And there are still questions that need answering, even if they are not necessarily the ones being asked. The key one for our industry is why the PR people involved should be forced to take the flack for decisions that were - or should have been - taken by their masters.

The release of Dr Kelly's name, for example, appears to have been - at least on a practical level - the work of the MoD press office. But from a management perspective, it is unacceptable that decisions of such obvious sensitivity are taken without clearance from the highest level.

MoD director of news Pam Teare therefore should be cleared of any wrongdoing - if she had not confirmed the name, once it was clear that Dr Kelly had been identified internally, her team would have faced familiar charges of cover-up and concealment.

And yet, even as this tragic episode unwinds, the players are back playing their game. As PRWeek goes to press, one newspaper reports that Downing Street insisted on the release of Dr Kelly's name, another that it was a decision taken at departmental level, while a third accepts the Alastair Campbell line that Number 10 was consulted on the issue but did not pull rank. This sort of buck-passing is a poor tribute to a distinguished public servant.

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